News-Miner opinion: After about five months of leveraging,
jockeying and arm twisting, the Alaska Legislature adjourned this week after fixing its budget mess — in a manner of speaking — and leaving a bit of a mess behind.
Voting 28-10, House lawmakers joined the Senate in passing a budget and opting to leave town — with a lot of work undone and the certainty of a special session or two later this year to clean up loose ends they failed to tie up during the regular or special session.
This contentious session of the 32nd Legislature was star-crossed from the outset, with the House refusing to gavel into session for nearly a month while its members tussled for leadership positions. When the dust settled, Republicans were the House minority, with 18 members, and the House’s 21-member majority coalition included Democrats, Republicans and independents. Anchorage Rep. Sara Rasmussen joined neither group.
Fights over a long-term fiscal plan, an idea pushed by the Republican minority, and a constitutional amendment proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy that would enshrine the Permanent Fund dividend in the Alaska Constitution and boost its amount burned up time. The lack of a budget also brought the state within a few days of a government shutdown July 1, the beginning of the state’s new fiscal year.
A final skirmish erupted over the House budget’s lack of an “effective date clause,” something Dunleavy said made it constitutionally “defective.” It needed 27 votes in the 40-member House to pass. It received heavy flak from minority Republicans, who wanted to use their votes for leverage, and it failed with only 23 votes. With no such clause, the budget would have taken effect in September.
After much wrangling, the budget passed this week with 28 votes and the necessary verbiage.
The Legislature also failed to approve in a required three-quarters vote the use of Constitutional Budget Reserve funds to fully fund the budget as written. As a result, the annual “reverse sweep” that restores program funds at the start of each fiscal year due to a constitutional requirement, did not occur.
That failure leaves unfunded or underfunded capital projects and several programs important to Alaska. It means, among other things, Permanent Fund dividends of about $525 for each Alaskan, along with a lack of funding for state subsidies to help cut the high cost of rural home electricity or fund college scholarships to Alaska students.
When it was all over, the House and Senate had agreed to create a “bicameral nonpartisan working group” in a bid to create a comprehensive state fiscal plan before the Legislature’s next special session, sometime later in the year. Lawmakers say they believe the remaining loose ends can be tied up in a later session this year, but their earlier actions do not engender much optimism in the peanut gallery.
Lawmakers have much work to do in upcoming session(s). We can only hope they will resolve their differences and do better than they have to date.
Alaska deserves better. Alaskans deserve better.